With time comes experience, and the Penticton conservation officers have plenty of it.
Mike Stern is the latest conservation officer out of the local office to be awarded the Peace Officer Exemplary Service Medal recognizing officers who have completed 20 years. He works alongside conservation officer Bob Hamilton and field sergeant Jim Beck, who also have over 20 years experience.
Stern grew up in Penticton and fell in love with the outdoors.
“I knew I wanted to be a conservation officer since I was 15. My mother worked at the office so I got to meet all the COs when I was young and I knew that is what I wanted to do. It is the whole aspect of working outdoors and with the wildlife,” said Stern.
The conservation officer geared his schooling towards the job and was posted in Surrey and Port Alberni before returning to Penticton, the place it all started with him as a teenager, riding with Penticton officers.
“Protecting our natural resources is a big reward to this job,” he said. “We obviously go after poachers and things like that, but if we can work on files that protect habitat it goes a long ways.”
Over his 20 years of service, Stern has seen the trend of more user groups accessing the back-country, in particular more off-road vehicle use.
“What is happening in some of the areas never used before by vehicles is that we are seeing a lot more habitat damage due to new trail systems,” he said. “People don’t realize the amount of impact they create. That one time in a wetland can take years for it to rehabilitate itself.”
Violation tickets do get handed out under a 2008 provincial legislation that fines those who wilfully cause destruction to ecologically sensitive areas. The goal is to protect the sensitive areas, not stop recreational activities. The officers’ goal is to see that off-roaders stay on established trails and resist the urge to hill climb or mud bog. Stern said the conservation officers do a lot of patrols with the aim to educate user groups.
Another disturbing trend Stern has seen is partiers going out to the back-country, cutting trees down, having illegal fires, leaving behind garbage and doing damage to structures such as picnic tables. Technology, and responsible users, have helped conservation officers try and curb the behaviour.
“With Facebook, Youtube and cellphone cameras, we get more and more reports, and images to go along with them, from concerned users of the areas. There are lots of eyes and ears out in the bush that will document situations for us to follow up on, which is nice to know,” said Stern.
One of the issues that generates the most amount of calls is bears. So far, Stern said, bears have been slowly emerging, but he expects that to change as the weather warms up. The focus here is also on education, he said.
“We receive approximately 500 calls of bear complaints each year. Our job is to keep bears alive, and the majority of the time people are the problem, not the bears. We are the biggest wildlife advocates there are,” said Stern.
The conservation officer commended the work done by Zoe Kirk with the Bear Aware program to educate residents. This year the Bear Aware program is broadening its scope to include cougar, coyote and urban deer under the WildSafeBC banner working in concert with the B.C. Conservation Foundation. She reports sightings of black bears and cubs have began in Summerland and the surrounding area. Stern reminds people to be aware of what attractants they are leaving out for bears and to try and eliminate them.
Besides Stern, nine other conservation officers in the province were awarded the exemplary service medal earlier this month by Environment Minister Terry Lake and B.C. Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon. Lake said conservation officers are leaders in B.C. and complimented them on working hard to protect the environment and reduce human-wildlife conflicts.
“There are many members within the service who go well beyond the call of duty and I am extremely proud of those honoured with the Peace Officer Exemplary Service Medal,” said chief conservation officer Kelly Larkin.
To report a poacher or polluter call the toll free tip line at 1-877-952-7277.